The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

On the eve of the sale of the family’s multimillion dollar business, black sheep Alban makes his way home where he will have to confront the truth about his mother’s death and the love that lingers for his cousin Sophie.

I was intrigued by the plot of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, hinging as it does around a family that built its fortune on a successful Risk-type game. That kind of staggering wealth and the ramifications on relationships sounds fascinating to me, particularly since the book jacket also hinted at incest and suicide.

I had trouble sustaining interest in reading this book, even I was enjoying the prose style and characterizations. I think I was hoping for something a bit more epic out of the family melodrama. Instead, the question of “should we sell” never took the story very far out of workaday concerns. Alban, who has been recruited by another cousin to speak on behalf of those opposed to the sale, really has no opinion on the matter, and doesn’t even spend too much time thinking about it. All of the scenes involving the sale of the company read more like a prospectus than a work of fiction.

Alban’s torturous memory of his brief, youthful affair with his cousin Sophie, cruelly interrupted by the intervention of his domineering grandmother Win, livened things up. But after their teenage tryst came to an end, Sophie dissolves into nothingness, and I had to keep reminding myself that she was important to Alban, and to the story. Later, when we meet Sophie as an adult, we learn lots of tantalizing things about her that make her out to be way more interesting than teen Sophie. But these are only glimpses, never resolving into full characterization.

Despite my dislike of this book, it was worth reading for one masterful passage, describing how Alban’s girlfriend Veruschka survived a tsunami by swimming out to sea, then staying there and treading water. It’s a powerful passage, full of drama both intimate and sweeping, that put me in the moment with Veruschka with a power that the rest of the book lacked for me.

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